In an age when crossover-slanted, heavily promoted violin babes are a staple of record industry marketing, Isabelle Faust’s career seems cut from a different cloth. Though the German violinist has made nearly 20 albums since the late 90s, her photo appears on the cover of just a few. A casual Internet search turns up a Wikipedia page that is only in German and a few profiles in industry trade magazines.
In Europe, Faust has appeared as a soloist with many premier orchestras and chamber music series. In 1993, she became the first German to win the Paganini Competition of Genoa. Four years later she received UK-based Gramophone magazine’s “Young Artist of the Year” award.
Faust came to Philadelphia in the early 1990s to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and made her American debut with the Utah Symphony in 1995. But she only made her first appearance with a top U.S. orchestra in 2008, with the Boston Symphony. Her debut with the New York Philharmonic came last week, as part of its “Bach Variations” festival.
Why the slow burn? While admired by violin aficionados, Faust is also notably self-effacing and unpretentious. She waxes enthusiastic about learning Beethoven from the manuscript scores and discovering neglected composers.
“I am convinced that there’s lots of music that nobody really knows or nobody really cares to play and which is still either very, very interesting music or very high quality music,” she told Jeff Spurgeon at a recent public talk at the David Rubinstein Atrium. "Sometimes it happens and then I think one should defend this music and also educate the public.” She pauses and laughs. “That sounds very severe.”
Faust’s early recordings were not of splashy violin showpieces but works by Bela Bartok, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Andre Jolivet and Morton Feldman. Last year she recorded the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach, the third of which she played in the WQXR Café. Faust admits they present a particular challenge. “I do play those sonatas and partitas in one evening, which is a challenge for everybody, for the violinist and also for the public,” she said. “I do find the public needs to come closer to me and it’s difficult to come to the public with this music. It’s such an inner music.”
Faust’s violin is a 1704 Stradivarius nicknamed the "Sleeping Beauty." "It's called the Sleeping Beauty because it was forgotten about for 150 years,” she told the South China Morning Post. “Then around 1900, it was found again."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Chase Culpon; Text & Production: Brian Wise